Source : Globe & Mail
CBC Television needs to be more like Tim Hortons and less like Starbucks, says the man responsible for the network.
"If it's a public broadcaster and it's paid for by all the taxpayers, then it has got to make an offer that is the broadest possible offer," Richard Stursberg, vice-president of CBC-TV, said in a recent interview reviewing the current television season and defending the network's still unproven scheme to boost ratings with populist formulas. "It's not a service that is built for elites."
His remarks may find a sympathetic ear with his new boss: Montreal lawyer Hubert Lacroix, whose appointment as the corporation's new president was announced Monday, has said the CBC must provide programming with a broad appeal.
"We're very pleased," Stursberg said in a subsequent interview yesterday, responding to the appointment. "I've never met him, but he's got a good CV, he looks interesting and his opening remarks are nice."
Although Lacroix, a corporate lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions in the telecommunications field, is largely unknown inside the CBC, he appears, like Stursberg, to be opposed to a vision of the national broadcaster operating only as a quality niche service in a fragmented television environment.
"Sometimes people overstate the state of fracture," Stursberg said. "In Canada, the big entertainment shows still sit on conventional TV. Home and Garden TV is nice for gardening shows, but you can't put big drama, Canadian or American, anywhere but the conventional stations."
His Tim Hortons simile is particularly pointed since it picks a Canadian icon (albeit one now owned by a U.S. parent) over an American one in its selection of the more down-market choice. While Stursberg suggested that the CBC takes a uniquely celebratory approach to reality TV - "I don't want to do people eating bugs," he said - he does not stress stylistic differences between private and public broadcasting but merely the Canadian factor in the content.
"How do we distinguish ourselves? We distinguish ourselves in the most elementary way: We are Canadian and they are not."
Stursberg argues that this populist formula is now proving itself and that the CBC has stopped its ratings slide: "We think directionally it's going okay. We seem to be getting some traction; people say they like the new shows."
The network earned an 8.3-per-cent share of the television audience in prime time during its launch week this fall, up from 7.6 per cent last year. However, none of the new series are hitting the million mark that Stursberg has previously identified as the benchmark for success.
The best-performing of the new series is The Tudors, which started very strongly at 957,000 viewers, but has slipped since then. It's season-to-date average is 825,000, according to CBC figures. The next most popular new series is the family drama Heartland, with an average of 464,000. Meanwhile, last season's hit, Little Mosque on the Prairie, has slipped from the million mark it was achieving last year to an average of 832,000 viewers this season. Currently, the most popular show on the CBC, apart from Hockey Night in Canada, is Rick Mercer Report with a season-to-date average of 975,000 although last Sunday's episode of Just for Laughs also pulled in 1.1 million viewers. (The top American dramas on Canadian television routinely draw more than two million viewers.)
"It may not be all the way there, but it is still improved over where it was. ... We are gratified by people's reactions to the new shows," Stursberg said.
Stursberg defended the CBC's decision to borrow reality formats from other countries, including the entrepreneurs' contest Dragon's Den from Japan and, from the BBC, the celebrity genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? and the IQ quiz Test the Nation. He said these shows allow the CBC to pack Canadian stories into proven formulas. He pointed out that the CBC can also sell overseas its own original reality ideas, such as The Next Great Prime Minister and the talent contest Triple Sensation. However, none of the CBC's reality series have provided the network with a hit: Dragon's Den has a season-to-date average of 450,000 viewers; Who Do You Think You Are? has drawn 351,000 and Triple Sensation has pulled in 313,000 viewers. Both Test the Nation: IQ Test and The Next Great Prime Minister, which were special events, did much better, drawing 1.5 million and 865,000 viewers when they aired in March.
In January, Stursberg will deliver on a promise he made when he joined the CBC in 2004 as a new prime-time Canadian soap makes its debut: MVP is a behind-the-scenes hockey drama.
He also argued that the federal government and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission have been betting on the wrong horse in their attempts to get more Canadian content on Canadian television by providing incentives and grants to the private sector while cutting funding to the CBC.
"Nobody else will put Canadian drama on in deep prime time," he said. "The specialties can't do it because they can't afford to, and the others won't because it will destroy their economics [based on simulcasting U.S. shows]. So we are the only ones."
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